After determining that smoke is coming from the car stereo, you can troubleshoot the issue, assess the damage, and take steps to fix and prevent it from happening again.
What should you do exactly when your car radio is smoking? Let’s find out below.
In general, when your car stereo is smoking, turn it off to reduce further potential damages. Determine how the receiver was installed, for instance, factory or aftermarket and professional or DIY. Check if the warranty still covers the radio and if not, check for the most common electrical problems.
Tip: One of the most common reasons for the car radio to start smoking is bad wiring. Quality wires are critical, especially in older systems, and you may need to replace them also in your car.
I have been using these wires for a long time, and I am happy with their quality.
After following safety procedures and determining how the unit was installed, this article will discuss the steps necessary on what to do when your car stereo is smoking. Next, you will learn how to prevent it from happening in the future, so read on.
Why Car Stereos Smoke
Car audio receivers have multiple names: head unit, multimedia receiver, and stereo. But most importantly, it’s the component that gives you control over the music volume and equalizer settings.
Typically, a head unit includes buttons or a touch screen for switching presets, modes, or other display inputs. Some receivers are satellite radio compatible or have wireless capabilities for Bluetooth usage. Car stereo sizes are standardized to make it easier to switch from a factory-installed head unit to an aftermarket receiver.
If you see smoke while driving, turn off the audio unit, and safely pull over. Just for this reason, it’s smart to have a car fire extinguisher securely installed.
Although there are many standard extinguishers to choose from, you will also need to purchase a bracket like this one from Amazon: The Bracketeer Car Fire Extinguisher Bracket to hold the canister under the seat or in the trunk to contain it safely.
To discover why a car receiver is smoking, gather information about the unit. Locate the user manual, manufacturer, and determine if it is factory installed or aftermarket. The most common reason why a car receiver smokes is because of an electrical issue. Possibly there’s a short somewhere in the speaker wiring; therefore, your first step is to troubleshoot the head unit.
Check Your Installation
Assuming you have turned off the audio and are in a safe place, gather your information before checking the installation design. Determine who installed the receiver and if it’s covered by warranty. Know the make and model and where it was purchased.
Locate the user manual, online or on paper, just in case you need to contact the manufacturer. Return it to the professional who installed it, or if it was a do-it-yourself project, check for the most common problem, an electrical issue.
Disassemble the entire car audio system install, pulling out the head unit, checking for crossed power wires, loose items, and unprotected wire touching the rear head unit. Check the power supply. Reassemble and make sure all connections are good and correctly hooked up.
Afterward, you may need to hit the reset button in the head unit; however, some models do not have them. If yours does, check your manual as to how to do it. You will often remove the faceplate on the head unit and press the button on the front panel with a ballpoint pen tip to reset.
Check Your Wiring
Follow every wire to check for burn marks, breaks, corrosion, or chew through damage from a rodent. If there is a visible disruption of the wire, repair the damage.
Cut out the deteriorated section, strip the two ends, and solder them together. Insulate the wire with electrical tape or a heat shrink tube, which is cheaply purchased in hardware stores or Amazon, for example, the Wirefy Heat Shrink.
If the spot is not visible, but you believe it to be a bad wire, replace the whole wire. Determine the correct gauge for your car audio system before purchasing a replacement wire. For example, this 18 Gauge Stranded Wire is flexible and insulated, therefore excellent for car audio installations.
Check the power supply wire and the ground to ensure they have good connections and are properly attached. Is the ground connection clean and undisturbed? Although this tip is not for the electrically uninformed, if you hardwire the head unit to the battery and still smoke, you will know the issue is with the unit, not the wiring.
An electrical audio wire is typically copper and manufactured at different performance levels, the purest being oxygen-free copper (OFC) in contrast to the cheaper copper-covered aluminum wire. OFC is preferred for audio because less oxygen means less distortion.
The copper is jacketed and sometimes insulated, depending on the wire purpose. Cable wiring consists of multiple strands of wires enclosed in a sheath. Usually, it is color-coded according to recommended industry common usage, although the color coding is not standardized.
An example of a Car Stereo Wire Diagram by Quality Mobile Video indicates an aftermarket receiver connector legend. It’s a clear indicator of how easily wires can get mixed and cause a short unless the installer is cautious.
It’s best to read the manufacturer’s specifications carefully to determine you have the correct cable. Also preferred for audio wiring is stranded versus solid wire because of its flexibility and a diminished breakage chance during installation.
Here’s a 3-minute video demonstrating how to troubleshoot your car’s receiver that includes the basics of checking wires for 12-volt current and blown fuses using a multimeter. It’s a great video for newcomers to car audio wiring issue detection.
If no installation or wiring problems have occurred, but the car head unit still runs hot, it is time to get the entire stereo system serviced. Car audio specialists can be found online or at established auto stores.
Contact a Professional
After you checked the points listed above, most likely, the problem is resolved. However, if not, contact a car stereo professional. Reputable stores and online sites will likely offer free technical support. For example, Crutchfield expects the average do-it-yourselfer to hit a snag and provides support for items purchased from them for the product’s life.
Although problems may not be evident and therefore hard to diagnose, a professional audio expert will often have all of the experience and tools necessary to run the tests and resolve the issues.
How to Prevent Your Car Stereo From Smoking
Before seeing smoke or flames, be aware of other potential signs, the smell of burning plastic or sizzling noises. Turn off the audio component and investigate further before seeing smoke or fire to prevent more extensive damage.
Be aware that old parts may overheat more quickly due to old materials, especially if the volume is played at a high level for a prolonged time. Routinely perform car audio maintenance, but especially old systems.
To correctly maintain the car system, check wire connections regularly for loosening or corrosion caused by exposure to moisture for extended periods of time. Be aware of sparking and potential damage to the components as you are inspecting wiring.
While the Internet works well for diagnosing common car audio issues, this advice is not a substitute for a professional diagnosis, especially if car safety is on the line due to electrical issues. Your best bet is to turn off the audio head unit, check all wiring, and if the issue is not evident, contact a car audio specialist and use your research as a starting point for fixing the problem.
If you suspect a receiver failure, have your warranty information available before contacting the business where it was purchased. Remember to head off extensive damage through prevention techniques.